Some playwrights have a gift to amuse; Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has a darker gift. Anyone with romantic notions of Chinese culture will be unsettled by the jagged, unsentimental portrait of modern urban China presented in the Goodman Theatre's world premiere of her drama The World of Extreme Happiness. Hell, even if you don't have romantic notions, you'll probably be unsettled. (The title of the play is, no surprise, sarcastic.)
From her opening scene, in which we see the female protagonist, Sunny, born, then thrown into a bucket of pig slop to die because her family wants a boy, Cowhig assaults us with troubling images, disagreeable characters, and harsh dialogue (her people curse like Mamet's). Be prepared: the nasty, brutish world created here is far from the sweet fairy-tale China of last season's The White Snake.
Actually, the story Cowhig tells, about a young woman adrift in Shenzhen, one of China's booming megacities, has a lot more in common with the relentlessly realistic novels written about Chicago a century ago. Like Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, Cowhig shows us the dysfunctional world as is, in all its stupidity and brutality. She has no interest in pasted-on happy endings. In fact, the ending of the play is so dark and troubling—and so totally believable—it left the audience in stunned silence. It haunts me still.
Director Eric Ting remains true to Cowhig's searing vision. And he's filled this production with actors who gracefully negotiate Cowhig's sometimes difficult terrain. Ting's cast ably switch styles, playing the cartoon one minute, adding depth when it is needed.
Jo Mei must do this when one of her characters, the deluded follower of a self-help guru, is transformed from comic relief into someone we genuinely care about, as she's ground down by the heartless system she thought she would prosper in. Donald Li is utterly convincing as a selfish father who cares more for his pigeons than his children. But the play really belongs to Jennifer Lim, who gives a virtuoso performance as the long-suffering Sunny. Watching her slowly unfold the character over the course of this two-hour drama is a lesson in acting at its most controlled and powerful.
These fine performances don't make the play or its message any easier to take. But that's OK. Cowhig has written a play to open our eyes, to unsettle.